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Social Text 18.1 (2000) 135-141

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What Film Noir Can Teach Us about "Welfare as We Know It"

Paula Rabinowitz

In 1996, when President Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it," he indulged in his now legendary parsing of the English language. He was not going to end welfare tout court, just welfare as we know it. But no one questioned whether we as a nation actually did know it, either experientially or theoretically. Certainly speculation ran to what the new configuration would look like; but little attention was paid to its history. What is the welfare we know? The Social Security Act of 1935, the 1944 GI Bill of Rights, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, all of which have been enormously successful in alleviating poverty through pensions, education, health insurance, and subsidies for construction and jobs, most of which have benefited white male workers and their families? No. Welfare is a program that enables welfare queens to drive Cadillacs, as Ronald Reagan once asserted. A devious tool pathologizing the black family, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once implied. The root cause of the "culture of poverty," which could not be alleviated even when Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty." 1 In short, under the reign of Cadillac queens lodged in a sick and impoverished family and culture, welfare, as we know, is about greedy, slothful women and their delinquent, possibly illegitimate, children.

Welfare, as we know it now, is feminized, localized in decaying urban housing projects or in shabby trailer parks, hardly visible in the expansive American university system, the ten-lane highways crisscrossing the continent, or the tree-lined suburbs ringing our cities. These strategic investments were made to help the millions of returning World War II veterans reenter civilian life--a process understood to be fraught with the enormous "problems of homecoming" that required the same massive federal intervention as had the Depression to stave off the potential chaos, violence, and dangers facing the men, their families, and the nation. 2 The 1940s problem of homecoming, like that of 1930s unemployment, was debated endlessly among "experts," and in the pages of such diverse publications as the Readers' Digest and the New Yorker. It thus became the subtext of much postwar popular culture.

For instance, like many films noirs of the mid-1940s, The Blue Dahlia focuses on the strains three World War II veterans face as they reenter civilian life. Set in Los Angeles, as so many noirs were, the film contrasts [End Page 135] the bright exteriors of sunny southern California with the gloomy reality of shell shock, unemployment, war wounds, and psychic estrangement GIs faced on homecoming. Buzz (William Bendix) suffers whenever he hears "monkey music"; the hot jazz screaming from radios, jukeboxes, and nightclubs vibrates the steel plate in his head, leading him to violence and amnesia. Johnny (Alan Ladd) confronts his two-timing party-girl wife who has taken up with a Hollywood club owner only to be accused of her murder when she is found dead. The men react violently to the incursion of black America (in the form of its music) into the all-white bars and homes of L.A. and the parallel excursion of married women into the workforce and onto the dance floors that occurred while they were away at war. Through their own detective work Buzz, Johnny, and their buddy George are eventually cleared of the crime (and Johnny gets a new girl [Veronica Lake]), setting up the possibility of a smooth future. But the scenario of adultery, murder, amnesia, and bar brawls conveyed a distinctive uneasiness about these "heroes." 3

The plight of the returning GI had been seen as a "problem" years before war's end. Scores of local newspapers featured articles with headlines such as "Vets Seen as Big Problem," as the pages of social work journals and social psychology studies within the Research Branch, Information and Education Division, United States Army, and other federal agencies fretted about the massive influx of young men into an America now...


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pp. 135-141
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Archived 2005
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